Back in the 1980s during my freshman year of college in Santa Barbara, I read Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 book, Diet for A Small Planet. She was one of the first writers to point out the ethical and environmental repercussions of wide-spread meat consumption in the Western world.
As an appropriately idealistic young person, I immediately stopped eating meat, much to the bewilderment of my Texas-raised mother. She did her best to be supportive, offering me a careful corner of lasagna with the meat left out, while the rest of the family dug into their environmentally unsound pasta. But she voiced doubts that I would get adequate nutrition. My father reasoned that one vegetarian wasn’t going to change an entire country’s meat industry. I was deaf to their arguments, resolute that I had made a life change that would impact the world.
At school, it was easier to be a vegetarian. I had reinforcements. Two-thirds of my six roommates converted to vegetarianism (the two non-conformists would skulk out for hamburgers or fried chicken). At the local coffeehouse/restaurant we felt part of the vanguard ordering heaping plates of brown rice with steamed broccoli and carrots, topped with mounds of cheddar cheese. We happily stuffed and baked zucchini with clots of cheese, more brown rice and pine nuts, and less happily devoured meatless burgers made of vegetable protein and yet more brown rice.
These were the days, mind you, before it was fashionable to eat vegetarian. For college students, vegetarianism was basic and cheap, and while it was not exactly slimming – all that cheese! – the lifestyle made us feel healthy and virtuous.
All was fine and dandy until, home for the summer after sophomore year, I fell in love with a boy whose family owned a Mexican restaurant. Second-generation restaurateurs, they ran La Tolteca, a cozy hole-in-the-wall. At first my vegetarianism went under the radar. I could eat around the meat in a taco salad or ask for cheese enchiladas and avoid the refried beans cooked with lard. But my resolve began to weaken.
On our way out for the evening, the boyfriend and I would stop by the restaurant. After cooking all day, his grandmother would begin again, now to prepare the family meal. None of it was fancy; it was basic home cooking. But she was picky about her ingredients and used only the freshest and ripest of everything. The kitchen was always full of the rich smell of pork simmering in spicy adobo sauce, the sound and aroma of chorizo sizzling and then stirred into refried beans, the wafting cloud of slow-cooked chicken shredded into deep, fragrant mole sauce or the luxurious bouquet of pork posole soup.
My convictions to save the planet wavered in the face of her cooking.
Also at work in my reformation was the desire to feel a part of this warm and laughing family. Not yet 21, I was casually offered a cold Corona, which I sipped self-consciously. I felt altogether grown-up and exotic. The choice to not eat meat was a deliberate departure from my family’s traditional meat-and-potatoes food culture, something forward thinking and revolutionary, in my eyes. This homemade Mexican food signified something just as subversive: joining a family and culture that was not my own. In my deepest and secret heart, I had thoughts that these were potential in-laws. All that stuff from the Bible – “where you go I will go, your people will be my people” – would include dietary custom. My meatless creed continued to fray.
You can probably guess that Grandma’s Mexican food won out. My save-the-world principles were rescinded, and I returned to meat.
The boyfriend didn’t last, alas, but I remained a carnivore. Even today, the smell of pork in adobo or chicken en mole evokes the allure and romance that broke my meatless young self. Perhaps I should be ashamed of my lack of conviction in the face of a few refried beans, but the greater gift was my awakening to the possibilities of different families and cultures. I still want to save the planet, and I do try not to eat a lot of meat. But every once and awhile, there is nothing like a taco al carbon.